For some reason, security certifications get discussed a lot, particularly in forums catering to those newer to the industry. (See, for example, /r/asknetsec.) Now I’m not talking about business certifications (ISO, etc.) but personal certifications that allegedly demonstrate some kind of skill on behalf of the individual. There seems to be a lot of focus on certifications that you “need” or that will land you your dream security job.

I’m going to make the claim that you should stop worrying about certifications and instead spend your time learning things that will help you in the real world – or better yet, actually applying your skills in the real world. There are likely some people who will strongly disagree with me, and that’s good, but I want it to be a discussion that people think about, instead of just assuming certifications are some kind of magic wand.

I don’t think certifications are bad – in fact, I’ve got a few myself. I’m a current holder of both the OSCP and OSCE from Offensive Security (back when you could get an OSCP and take the exam naked if you wanted) and I’ve formerly held RHCE, LPIC-1 and LPIC-2 and a handful of other minor certifications. In fact, I’m damn proud of all of them.

I’ve been employed in the tech industry for over a decade, more than half of which has been doing security work. I’ve had the privilege (and responsibility) of interviewing a couple hundred people for tech roles in that time. I write this not for the ego boost, but in order to provide context for my viewpoint. One important note is that more than 7 years of that experience is with a single employer, which will obviously influence my thinking on this subject. It’s also important to note that this post (like others on my blog) is written in my personal capacity and does not necessarily represent the viewpoint or hiring practices of any employer, past, present, or future.

Most roles in infosec require a wide range of knowledge and the understanding of how to apply that knowledge. There are many skillsets necessary beyond what can be taught in a short class for a certification. For example, none of the technical certifications spend any significant time on soft skills, but the good practitioners in our industry are excellent communicators and can at least understand the business priorities, even if they don’t necessarily agree with them.

OSCP

OSCP is probably the most frequently-discussed certification I’ve seen. There’s a reason for its popularity – it is definitely high quality, and it has an exam that requires application of knowledge rather than mere repetition. The course developers (Offensive Security) know their material well, and holding the certification definitely has value. However, there’s a big gap between OSCP and being a real-world penetration tester:

  • Every box in the OSCP labs and exam is definitely vulnerable in some way. This is not necessarily true in the real world.
  • OSCP focuses almost entirely on commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software, but nearly every significant enterprise will have some amount of custom software.
  • The OSCP scope can best be described as “come at me, bro”, but real world penetration tests have vastly different scope.
  • Even though OSCP requires you to do a report for the exam, report-writing and communicating findings to the customer is a skill that is not adequately taught or tested.

When I did OSCP, I did it to learn about environments I hadn’t yet been exposed to, and I did it to prove to myself that it was something I could do. My employer didn’t need me to have it, and I haven’t used it to leverage my way into a new job. I did PWK/OSCP because I believed it would (and it did) make me more effective and enriched my skill set. (In case you’re wondering, the single biggest thing I learned from OSCP was how to effectively keep notes and organize information during a large-scale penetration test.)

OSCE

I also hold the OSCE certification, which I like to think of as the “big brother” to OSCP. Rather than focusing on penetration testing at a large network scale, this is exploitation at the individual service/server scale. Like OSCP, it requires application of skills on the exam. Again, I took the course and exam in order to learn new things (more about exploiting Windows) and to prove to myself that I could. Honestly, if I were to do it over again, I’d probably choose to take some of the CoreLan training instead – you won’t get a fancy certification, but I understand they go into far more detail and seem to have done a better job of keeping the training up to date with new versions of Windows.

Security+

I wouldn’t suggest anyone waste time with Security+. It’s a multiple choice exam that you can cram for from a single book. You don’t even need to use a computer while studying for it. While you might be able to spit out facts and random information about security controls and best practices, you won’t be able to apply that knowledge based on the exam alone. (Also, I’m given to understand that some of its advice no longer actually matches accepted industry best practices, such as advice on choosing passwords.)

CISSP

CISSP is a strange certification to me. It seems to be one of the certifications that people get because they work for a consultancy that wants to be able to say “all of our pentesters are CISSP certified.” So, if you want to work in consulting, and you have the relevant industry experience for CISSP, go for it. Better yet, convince your employer to pay for it. (It’s not cheap for a multiple-choice test.)

The material is not bad, but like all of the multiple-choice style exams, it’s all about memorizing and regurgitating basic information, and not about the application of that information in a real-world environment. Additionally, a lot of the information is policy-oriented, so depending on your ideal role, you might find some of it useful.

I know a lot of people working on internal teams that let their CISSP lapse just because there’s not much value in it there (and you have to pay to keep it current).

GIAC Certs

The GIAC certifications that go with SANS classes are, like so many others, purely multiple choice exams. Consequently, they do a poor job of showing application of technical skills. On the other hand, the courses associated with the exams are of decent quality and are very consistently taught. These certifications are also widely known, so are good choices for those who have to sell themselves to customers (e.g., consulting).

What not to do

Like everything else on your resume, do not lie about your certifications. For one, most of them are easily checked. Far more importantly, don’t list any certification you’re not prepared to discusss in an interview. I’ve had far too many candidates respond with “oh, I did that a few years ago and I don’t remember” when asked about a certification. If you can’t use the information today, then claiming it makes you a better candidate for the job is a lie. It’s approximately like trying to get a job that involves driving a truck when you haven’t driven in 5 years.

Don’t think having a certification will land you a job. At best, I would expect it to get you to an interview, but in that interview, be prepared to articulate material from the certification. If you have an alphabet soup of certifications, be prepared to express why you got them and what you thought was significant from them.

For interviewers, certs make a great “small talk” question. “Oh, I see you have your OSCP, what did you think was the hardest part?” You can learn a lot about a candidate if they immediately jump in and talk about it with pride and demonstrate their enthusiasm, or if they try to deflect and dismiss the question.

Conclusion

Certifications are not a bad thing, but you won’t be able to build a career on certifications alone. Taking classes that don’t yield a certification may, in fact, have more of an impact on you in the long run, because you can then choose to learn what you need/want to know, rather than learning whatever gets you a piece of paper. Focus on the skills you need to gain, and if you land certifications along the way, more power to you.